The Weekend Bookshelf: The Tudor Brandons, Ivan’s War and Water for Elephants

 Royal History: The Tudor Brandons: Mary And Charles – Henry VIII’s Nearest & Dearest by Sarah-Beth Watkins by Sarah-Beth Watkins.

When Michael Hirst wrote the screenplay for the Showtimes series, The Tudors, he was fascinated by King Henry VIII’s lifelong friend and brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Hirst wrote in The Tudors: Its’ Good to Be King, “Charles Brandon, was, perhaps, the only man in all of England to successfully retain Henry’s affection over a span of forty years.” Over the course of his reign, Henry remained close to Charles even though his friend committed the transgression of marrying the King’s widowed sister Mary without permission. Charles remained in favour even as Henry ordered the executions of formerly trusted advisers, Thomas More then Thomas Cromwell and queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Hirst made Charles a prominent character in The Tudors, giving the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk their most notable appearance in popular culture since the 1950s Walt Disney film, The Sword and the Rose.

Watkins, author of Lady Katherine Knollys, The Unacknowledged Daughter of Henry VIII, provides a short, readable biography of Charles and Mary in The Tudor Brandons. At the centre of the couple’s story is their elopement in 1515. Mary was the widow of King Louis XII of France and she married Charles Brandon to avoid being compelled to make another dynastic marriage. There would not be another instance of an English princess marrying a subject until Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise married John Campbell, Lord Lorne in 1871. Watkins provides a thoughtful analysis of the circumstances surrounding the controversial royal wedding including reasons why Henry VIII was inclined to forgive the match and the implicit challenge to his authority.

The Tudor Brandons also includes Brandon’s family history (he descended from a long line of opportunists who were often on the wrong side of the law) and Mary’s continued role in Anglo-French relations including her presence at the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit between Henry VIII and Francis I. Mary also exerted a cultural influence at court, shaping trends in fashion and country house gardens in addition to popularizing picnic suppers for the elite. Charles and Mary’s granddaughter Lady Jane Grey, the nine days queen, became a significant figure in later Tudor history and the family remains a part of popular culture today (For another biography of Henry VIII’s younger sister, see Mary Rose by David Loades). ***

History: Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

There have been numerous books written about the experiences of the British “Tommy” or German “Fritz” fighting on the front lines of the Second World War. In Ivan’s War, Catherine Merridale, author of Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, examines the daily life of “Ivan,” the Soviet soldier in what became known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War. Merridale provides the details of daily life at the front. In the early days of the war, adequate training (not to mention regular rations) were in short supply. Unless soldiers brought their own socks, they spent the war marching in one size fits all foot wrappers. There was no standardized system of leave and military service therefore meant long separations from families who also suffered hardships during the war.

In addition to reconstructing the daily lives of soviet soldiers during the Second World War, Merridale examines broader questions about the motives and worldviews prevalent within the Red Army. What motivated individual soldiers to keep fighting under such harsh conditions? What were the differences in perspective between older people, who might have had military experience from the First World War and the reign of Nicholas II and younger people, who had never known any other political system than the Soviet regime? How were women and religious majorities perceived? What were the factors that contributed to the atrocities committed by the Red Army in Romania, Hungary and East Prussia? Merridale concludes with a thoughtful analysis of the lasting impact of the wartime experience and includes the perceptions of the surviving veterans. ****

 Historical Fiction: Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen.

When veterinary student Jacob Jankowski loses his parents in a car accident, he leaves Cornell university and runs away with a 2nd tier traveling circus during the depression. The book was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film, Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.  In the novel, Jacob is ninety – or perhaps ninety-three, he can’t quite remember – looking back on his youth at the circus from his retirement residence. There’s a realism to his old age but his past unfolds like a fairy tale where the heroine is a elephant named Rosie.

Gruen based the novel on a series of true events that took place in Depression era American circuses and the setting is compelling, filled with intrigues on trains between small towns and tensions between performers and roustabouts. The characters have rather one dimensional personalities, however, and the ending is unconvincing. For circus themed historical fiction with more compelling characters, I recommend The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin or Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss. ***

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

“Richard III: Monstrous or Misunderstood?” begins October 4, 2016

The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III

The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III

My eight week evening course about the life and legacy of King Richard III is open for enrollment at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies. All are welcome. Click here for more information and to register.

The discovery in 2012 of the remains of Richard III underneath a parking lot in Leicester revived a centuries-old debate. Is he one of history’s greatest villains or the victim of Tudor propaganda? We will look at the bloody upheaval of the Wars of the Roses, including the famous disappearance of his nephews, the young Princes in the Tower. Was Richard the scheming villain of Shakespeare’s play or the misunderstood king who is the hero of modern novels by writers like Josephine Tey and Philippa Gregory? Join us to study a fascinating example of what may happen to leaders’ reputations once they’re dead.

Registration information is available here from the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Friday Royal Read: On The Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean

Medieval royalty were always on the move. The monarchs from the House of York who ruled England in the late fifteenth century (Edward IV, Richard III and the short lived “Prince in the Tower” Edward V) traveled around their kingdom dispensing justice and asserting their authority. Royal children were fostered in noble households then young men traveled on military campaigns, sometimes accompanied by their wives. Royal women who made dynastic marriages  to foreign princes traveled far from home to their new households.

The  Wars of the Roses resulted in unexpected travels for royalty who were forced to flee abroad or into places of religious sanctuary when events turned against them.  In On the Trail of the Yorks, Kristie Dean, author of The World of Richard III, follows in the footsteps of the House of York, visiting the sites of castles, cathedrals and towns associated with Richard III as well as his parents, siblings, children, nieces and nephews.

On the Trail of the Yorks is both a series of short biographies of the key figures from the House of York and a guidebook detailing the history and visitor information for the places familiar to them. Dean begins with Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville, parents of Edward IV and Richard III, examining how their sudden changes of fortune during the Wars of the Roses sent them as far afield as Ireland and France.

The travels of the famous Yorkist kings and their siblings are then discussed in detail. While numerous books about the Yorks end with Richard III’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth field, Dean continues into the reign of Henry VII, visiting the places significant to the first Tudor queen consort, Elizabeth of York and her book will be of interest to those interested in Henry VIII’s childhood.

In addition to providing a fresh perspective about the House of York, On the Trail of the Yorks reveals how the House of Plantagenet acquired properties over the course of successive reigns and what eventually happened to these estates. With the notable exception of Margaret of York’s marriage to the Duke of Burgundy, Yorkist royalty married members of the English nobility and acquired properties inherited by landed heiresses such as Cecily, Isabel and Anne Neville. Members of the landed gentry convicted of treason often forfeited their estates to the Crown and these new lands were integrated into the royal domains.

There is a popular perception that the British Isles are filled with medieval castles but On the Trail of the Yorks reveals how few of the buildings familiar to fifteenth century royalty are still standing. The dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII, the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, The Great Fire of London in 1666 all contributed to the destruction of medieval royal residences and places of worship.

The only trace of Palace of Placentia at Greenwich beloved by Elizabeth of York is a plaque commemorating the birth of her son Henry VIII and granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The medieval St. Paul’s cathedral burned down in the Great Fire and was replaced by the modern cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren. There is now a Travelodge hotel on the site of the Blue Boar Inn where Richard III reputedly spent the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field and the Duke of Buckingham is reputed to haunt the Debenhams department store near the site of his execution. On the Trail of the Yorks bridges the divide between how these sites appear to a modern visitor and how they would have looked to the House of York.

There are two kinds of readers who will be interested in On the Trail of the Yorks: armchair travelers interested imagining the settings of the Yorkist court and actual travelers looking for information about which sites are open to visitors and whether parking or transit connections are available. Dean provides a wealth of information for both kinds of readers. On the Trail of the Yorks brings the settings of the Yorkist court alive and encourages readers to follow in the footsteps of Richard III and his family during their own travels to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

Click here to purchase On the Trail of the Yorks from Amazon.

Next week: The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

My 3rd Book: Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting is now available for pre-order

I am excited to announce that my 3rd book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting will be published by Dundurn Press on April 8, 2017.

The book examines How twenty-five sets of royal parents raised their children over the past thousand years, from keeping the Vikings at bay to fending off paparazzi.

William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are setting trends for millions of parents around the world. The upbringing of their two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, is the focus of intense popular scrutiny. Royalty have always raised their children in the public eye and attracted praise or criticism according to parenting standards of their day.

Royal parents have always faced unique privileges and challenges. In medieval times, raising an heir often meant raising a rival, and monarchs sometimes faced their grown children on the battlefield. Kings and queens who lost their thrones through wars or popular revolutions found solace in time spent with their children. In modern times, royal duties and overseas tours have often separated young princes and princesses from their parents, a circumstance that is slowly changing with the current generation of royalty.

The book is currently available for pre-order from Indigo, Amazon and other booksellers.

Click here to pre-order Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting from

My other books also available from Amazon:

Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

My January-February 2016 course: Artists and Their Royal Patrons

800px-Henrietta_Maria_and_Charles_I In January and February 2016, I will be teaching an eight week course on Wednesday afternoons about Artists and Their Royal Patrons at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Click here to register

For centuries, artists sought out royal patrons to advance their careers. European monarchs were eager to fill their courts with artists to demonstrate their own acumen and prestige. Through lectures, images and discussions, Carolyn Harris will lead you through a lively exploration of the relations between great artists and their royal patrons. These include Hans Holbein and Henry VIII, Leonardo da Vinci and François I, Anthony van Dyck and Charles I, Peter Paul Rubens and Marie de Medici, and Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun and Marie Antoinette. We will look at Catherine the Great, who helped found the Hermitage Museum, and Queen Elizabeth II, who is appreciated as a “curator monarch” for her part in opening the British Royal Collection to the public. You’ll learn more about the collaboration and tension between royalty and artists that produced some of Europe’s most famous works of art and established collections now featured in great museums around the world.

Click here for more information and to register


Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Friday Royal Read: The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty

Every year, thousands of visitors to England follow in the footsteps of the Tudors, a dynasty of monarchs who reigned from the defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. The top fifty most popular British tourist attractions in 2015 included the Tower of London, where two of King Henry VIII’s six wives – Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard – were beheaded, Greenwich, the birthplace of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary I and Elizabeth I and the British Library, which houses key documents from Henry VIII’s reign, displayed in the 2009 exhibition Henry VIII: Man and Monarch.

Although King Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I are two of the most famous monarchs in English history, knowledge of their lives and reigns varies among visitors to their palaces, birthplaces and collections. There are visitors passionate about the Tudor history who consult comprehensive guides to Tudor sites, such as In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, to ensure that they absorb as much knowledge about these famous Kings and Queens as possible.

There are visitors who have encountered the Tudors through popular culture such as the The Tudors TV series or historical novels such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and know a mixture of fact and legend about them. Then, there are visitors who know the names of Tudor monarchs and little else, unsure about the number of Henry VIII’s wives or the influence of all those advisers named Thomas. In The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty, Barb Alexander provides an entertaining and informative introduction to the Tudor Dynasty that should be required in-flight reading for any tourist bound for England’s Tudor trail of historic sites.

One of the great strengths of The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty is the vivid descriptions of Henry VIII’s wives (or Henry’s half dozen as they are described in the book). For those with only a passing knowledge of sixteenth century England, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr blend together or are reduced to unhelpful stereotypes. (In Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, historian David Starkey summarized these simplistic portrayals as “the saint, the schemer, the doormat, the dim fat girl, the sexy teenager and the bluestocking”).

Alexander challenges the stereotypes by giving the reader a sense of the nuanced personalities of all six queens. Catherine of Aragon was pious but she was also a “hands-on queen” who served as Henry VIII’s regent while he was fighting wars in France. Katherine Howard’s time as queen ended in a royal scandal but she was also generous and charitable, providing the elderly Countess of Salisbury with warm clothes when the Countess was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Alexander does an excellent job of explaining the complicated religious politics of the time to those who may be unfamiliar with the full history, matching each wife of Henry VIII to her faith. (Anne Boleyn is entertainingly described as “reformation curious.”) The book is richly illustrated with art by Lisa Graves, giving a sense of fashions of sixteenth century England.

The welcome page asks readers to “Please leave your desire for indoor plumbing, antibiotics and good dental care behind” and a little more information about the day to day lives of Tudor courtiers amidst the religion and politics would have made the book even more engaging for readers new to the time period. Nevertheless, The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty will ensure that more visitors arrive at the Tower of London, Greenwich and Hampton Court knowing the key details about the lives and reigns of England’s Tudor monarchs.

Next week:  Agincourt (Great Battles Series) by Anne Curry

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Friday Royal Read: The Tudor Kitchen: What the Tudors Ate & Drank by Terry Breverton

The Tudor court was a place of lavish feasts. In a single year, the royal cooks prepared 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 53 wild boar and thousands of birds and fish. King Henry VIII’s waistline expanded from thirty-two inches at age 30 to fifty-four inches at age 55.  In The Tudor Kitchen: What the Tudors Ate & Drank, Terry Breverton, author of numerous works of Tudor and Welsh history including Jasper Tudor: Dynasty Maker, Owain Glyndwr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales and The Welsh: The Biography, explains Tudor farming and feasting then provides hundreds of annotated and modernized recipes for anyone interested in cooking Tudor dishes in their own kitchens.

Breverton takes a wide approach to the Tudor period, discussing dishes from England’s first cookbook, The Forme of Cury, a Roll of Ancient English Cookery: Compiled, about AD 1390, by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II to the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. This period saw an expansion in the range of available dishes as England expanded its trade relationships throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. The popular image of Tudor cooking is enormous roast meats turning on spits but Breverton includes recipes that demonstrate that the Tudor elite enjoyed a wider range of foods than English people of the mid twentieth century, including macaroni and cheese and chickpeas with garlic. Breverton also challenges the myth that people in Tudor times ate few vegetables. Surviving account books emphasize meat purchases because vegetables were grown at home. New vegetables from the Americas were incorporated into Tudor cooking over the course of the sixteenth century with beans and sweet potatoes favored over potatoes and tomatoes.

The recipe section provides a sense of how dishes evolved over time and new foods were incorporated into the Tudor diet. For example, The Forme of Cury included an early recipe for macaroni and cheese including instructions on rolling the dough for fresh pasta then “cast hym on boiling water and seeþ it wele. Take chese and grate it, and butter imelte.”  A book from 1595 reminded the reader that both Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins enjoyed “A cheap, fresh and lasting victual, called by the name of Macaroni amongst the Italians, and not unlike (save only in form) to the Cus-cus (couscous) in Barbary.” By 1769, there were a variety of pasta recipes in cookbooks including “To Dress Macaroni with Permasent [Parmesan] Cheese.”

Breverton also includes the favourite recipes of key figures at the Tudor court: Henry VIII enjoyed globe artichokes while his third wife Jane Seymour had a weakness for Cornish pasties. The workings of the Hampton Court Palace kitchens, which are open to the public today, receive less attention in Breverton’s book as there is already a detailed study of the preparation of food and drink at Hampton Court, All the King’s Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace by Peter Brears.

Of course, not everyone in Tudor times was feasting like Henry VIII and his courtiers at Hampton Court Palace. The sixteenth century was time of growing income inequality as the landed gentry grew wealthier by enclosing land to graze sheep, evicting farm labourers from their cottages. The dissolution of the monasteries removed a source of food and shelter for the poor. In the opening chapters on Tudor farming, Breverton explains how agricultural practices changed over the sixteenth century and farm labourers often struggled to find steady work and put food on the table. The recipe section includes instructions on how to make the vegetable pottages and coarse breads that were the daily diet of most people in Tudor times.

The Tudor Kitchen: What the Tudors Ate & Drank is an entertaining and educational introduction to sixteenth century English cuisine. The book will appeal to anyone interested in daily life in the sixteenth century England, especially those interested in recreating the meals and beverages of King Henry VIII’s court.

Next Week: The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America by F. H. Buckley

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Friday Royal Read: Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran

Most biographies of Elizabeth I describe her life from birth in 1533 to death in 1603, covering the events of her path to the throne and reign in chronological order. In Elizabeth I and Her Circle, Susan Doran, a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, co-editor of The Elizabethan World and Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives, and author of Mary Queen of Scots: An Illustrated Life and numerous books on Tudor England, instead devotes a chapter to each of the key relationships in the Queen’s life. Through analysis of Elizabeth I’s connections to her relatives, courtiers and councilors, Doran explodes the myths about the Queen’s character and reign, revealing the that England’s most famous ruler was a more complicated person than past biographers – and popular culture – have assumed.

Doran begins by reversing long standing assumptions about Elizabeth’s views of her parents, King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII is often described as a role model for his daughter and a person she idealized (For an example, listen to the recent BBC Great Lives episode on Elizabeth I) while the disgraced and beheaded Anne Boleyn was quietly forgotten. While Elizabeth I included Henry VIII in her public image to reinforce her legitimacy as queen, Doran argues convincingly that her surviving writings hint that she viewed her father as an intimidating and unpredictable figure during her childhood. Elizabeth displayed little grief when Henry died in 1547. In contrast, Elizabeth surrounded herself with Boleyn cousins during her reign, particularly the numerous members of the Carey and Knollys families, the descendants of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary.

In many biographies of Elizabeth I, the Queen’s relationships with her Tudor cousins are reduced to decades of conflict with Mary, Queen of Scots and outrage over the secret marriage of Lady Catherine Grey (sister of the famous 9 Days Queen, Lady Jane Grey). These selected episodes convey the impression that Elizabeth’s primary emotion toward her female cousins was jealousy, declaring Catherine’s sons illegitimate and comparing her own childlessness to Mary giving birth to a healthy son (the future James I). Elizabeth had far more relatives with a claim to her throne and more complicated dealings with her family than a narrow focus on Mary and Catherine would suggest.

Doran traces the careers of the entire Suffolk line (descendants of Henry VIII’s youngest sister), revealing that the Queen enjoyed decades of friendship with her cousin Margaret Clifford, the mother of numerous sons, which belies the assumption that she was inherently hostile to her female royal cousins and their progeny. Elizabeth even enjoyed a brief period of good relations with Mary, Queen of Scots. Doran provides evidence that Elizabeth’s decision to reject the legitimacy of Catherine’s marriage was partly motivated by a desire to reassure Mary about her place in the succession. The only close royal relative who does not receive substantial analysis in Doran’s book is Arbella Stuart, a curious omission considering that Elizabeth actually met her in person, in contrast to Mary and James.

Key chapters at the centre of the book are devoted to Elizabeth I’s “favourites,” Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sir Christopher Hatton and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Doran dismisses the speculation, which has existed since the sixteenth century and persists in films and historical novels today, that Elizabeth had affairs with these courtiers. Instead, the book discusses the political role of these men and takes them seriously as influential figures at the Queen’s court. The Earl of Essex, who is often dismissed as a vain and empty headed youth, in fact earned an MA from Cambridge at the age of sixteen and displayed a consistent desire to serve the Queen on the battlefield. The women in Elizabeth I’s circle have already received extensive analysis in the recent books The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court by Anna Whitelock and Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman but Doran provides some fresh insights and challenges the longstanding view that the Queen was inherently hostile to the marriages of her ladies-in-waiting.

Elizabeth I and Her Circle is essential reading for anyone interested in Queen Elizabeth I, her court and the wider Tudor dynasty in the sixteenth century. Doran strips away centuries of mythology surrounding Elizabeth I, revealing the interplay between her personal relations with family, courtiers and counselors and the political decisions she made as Queen. In her dealings with her circle, Elizabeth placed her interests as Queen above any personal rivalries or attachments. The Queen’s most lasting relationship was with England and her subjects.

Next Week: Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873) by Marin Soroka and Charles A. Ruud.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Friday Royal Read: Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of Henry VIII by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Lady Katherine Knollys lived her life at the centre of the Tudor court, her fortunes rising, falling and rising once more as different kings and queens succeeded to the throne. She was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, who had a quiet affair with Henry VIII that became known throughout Europe when Henry sought to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Mary’s younger sister, Anne Boleyn. When Henry VIII’s Roman Catholic daughter Mary I succeeded to the throne, Katherine and her husband, Sir Francis Knollys fled abroad to escape the persecution of Protestants. Once Elizabeth I became queen, Katherine was back in favour, serving as a Lady of the Bedchamber while Francis was appointed a Privy Councillor, captain of the guard, treasurer of the royal household, and guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots. The couple had 14 children and are ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin.

Katherine’s eventful life, shaped by the key political, religious and social changes of the 16th century has plenty of material for a biographer. For Sarah-Beth Watkins, however, Katherine is most interesting  because of the circumstances of her conception and birth. The book is boldly titled Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII without a question mark even though there is no definitive evidence regarding Katherine’s paternity.

Katherine was treated as a cousin rather than a sister by Elizabeth I and the resemblance to Henry VIII in the cover portrait may reflect the artist’s views on her parentage rather than her actual appearance. Even Watkins’s argument that Henry VIII ended his affairs once a child was born may be countered by speculation by Elizabeth Norton that Bessie Blount was the mother of two of the king’s children, a recognized son and an unacknowledged daughter. In contrast to how Henry VIII is portrayed in popular culture, such as The Tudors, the king conducted his early affairs with discretion. Under these circumstances, it’s unlikely that definitive evidence will emerge regarding whether Katherine’s father was Henry VIII or Mary Boleyn’s first husband, William Carey.

The emphasis on the circumstances of Katherine’s birth and childhood is at the expense of her later life. A single chapter is devoted to her service at Elizabeth I’s court. In recent years there has been an outpouring of books about Queen Elizabeth’s friendships including Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court by Anna Whitelock and the newly published Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran. Elizabeth expected to control the personal lives of ladies in waiting and those who married or left court without permission risked the queen’s wrath. Katherine managed to remain in the queen’s good graces and her service to the queen merits more attention in the book. Watkins also has little to say about Francis Knollys’ family background, which was as intertwined with Tudor court politics as Katherine’s own circumstances.

Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII is a clearly written, short introduction to the life of one of the most prominent women at the Tudor court. The book contains lengthy excerpts from correspondence and other documents related to Katherine’s life that serve as an introduction to the Tudors and their times. There are many other books, however, that provide a better sense of what it was like to serve in the household of Elizabeth I. The definitive biography of Lady Katherine Knollys is yet to be written.

 Next week: The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom by Nancy Goldstone

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Friday Royal Read: Katharine of Aragon by Patrick Williams

King Henry VIII – a larger than life historical figure in every sense of the word – usually dominates biographies of his six wives. When Henry VIII is at the centre of events, the focus is usually on England with Europe and the wider world including successive Popes, Kings of France and rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor serving as a backdrop to the people and politics of the English court. This approach makes sense for Henry VIII’s 3rd, 5th and 6th wives, Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr as they never left England and owed their rise entirely to the King’s interest.

The lives of Henry VIII’s other 3 wives, however, were shaped directly by events in the rest of Europe as well as England. Anne Boleyn spent part of her childhood in France and the acknowledgement of King Francois I was crucial to her legitimacy as Henry VIII’s queen. Anne of Cleves was a German princess, raised amidst the conflict between the German states sparked by the Protestant Reformation.

Of all of Henry VIII’s wives, his first queen, Katharine of Aragon, made the greatest impact beyond England’s borders. As the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, her two successive English marriages were part of a broader Anglo-Spanish alliance. Henry VIII’s attempts to secure an annulment would become an multi-year international incident, encompassing France, the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain) and the Papacy. In Katharine of Aragon, Patrick Williams, Emeritus Professor of Spanish History at the University of Portsmouth and author of Philip II and The Great Favourite: The Duke of Lerma and the Court and Government of Philip III of Spain, 1598-1621 makes full use of Spanish archival material to present Henry VIII’s first wife in her full European context.

Williams’s biography of Katharine of Aragon is very much a life and times, discussing the political and religious events across Europe that affected Katharine in addition to Katharine herself. He covers corruption within the Papacy, the Protestant Reformation and the shortage of male heirs in many of Europe’s royal houses in the early sixteenth century. Of all of Henry VIII’s six wives, Katharine is the one who has been the subject of the greatest number of popular histories that place her in a European context. Julia Fox compared her life to that of her sister Queen Juana “la Loca” of Castile in Sister Queens , Catherine Fletcher examined the negotiations with the papacy regarding the annulment of Katharine’s marriage in The Divorce of Henry VIII and Giles Tremlett wrote of Katharine as The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII.

Williams’s book stands out from these other works because it focuses on three main events in Katharine’s life: the negotiation of her marriages, Henry VIII’s short lived alliance with Katharine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VIII’s quest for an annulment, which led to the break with Rome and establishment of the Church of England. Henry VIII is not always at the centre of events and does not marry Katharine until page 173 of 400 in the book. Instead, Katharine’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella and her nephew Charles V emerge as the key figures who helped to shape her destiny.

While Williams provides a fresh perspective on the key events of Katharine’s life, he rarely engages with recent historical debates concerning the other figures of the period. As far as Williams is concerned, Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower, Henry VII was one of England’s greatest kings and Katharine’s sister Juana la Loca was showing signs of mental illness from childhood. A more nuanced portrayal of these people would have enhanced the book. The idea that Juana was too insane to rule suited the political ambitions of her father Ferdinand of Aragon, husband Philip the Handsome and son Charles V. Their attitudes toward her mental health cannot be accepted at face value. The focus on international events also means that little time is devoted to Katharine’s network of support in England. Only two of her female friendships, with Henry VIII’s sister Mary and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, are discussed in any detail.

Katharine of Aragon was married to Henry VIII longer than his subsequent five wives put together and arguably knew him better than any other person in his life. This magisterial biography illuminates her full historical significance in both England and the rest of sixteenth century Europe. Katharine lived in a time of tremendous social, political and religious change and was always at centre of events as a princess and queen.

Next Week:  Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather